Why SMEs Should Embrace 3D Printing

3D Printing

There’s not a day that goes by where 3D printing fails to generate a headline. From guns to transplants, it is the wunderkind that futurologists believe will spark the third industrial revolution, allowing consumers to print the products they want rather than buying in store or online. Don’t worry though. For this democratisation to become a reality our society would need to see a serious shift before there’s a high quality printer in every household.

While 3D printing is unlikely to affect consumers for the foreseeable future (other than the aforesaid headlines and the communities of early-adopter enthusiasts) it has the power to improve your company from a commercial point of view, if you have the foresight to embrace. Here’s why…

Currently the technology is not fast enough to be produced en masse. The real strength in 3D printing lies in its ability to produce customised solutions. You can see this most clearly in the medical world, specifically for transplants such as hip and knee replacements. Every person is different and through 3D scanning, medics have the ability to produce to order an exact replica to increase the success and durability of the procedure.

The same can be applied in the commercial world; 3D printing can provide an affordable way to solve operational problems. If a piece of kit breaks, you can print off a replacement in-house rather than incur the expense and time delay of outsourcing substitute pieces or worse, a completely new machine. You don’t need to be a manufacturer to benefit from this – how many offices struggle when the printer breaks down or manufacturers stop making the adapters needed for that projector you just can’t afford to replace.

One step further, for forward-thinking engineering companies, 3D printing allows you to trial and test prototypes cheaply until you arrive at the perfect solution. It offers alternative physical modeling and the ability to keep trialing and testing a design to finality, cheaply.

The costs are kept low firstly because by creating prototypes in plastic, which are by their very nature cheap, you can happily throw it away. Secondly investment doesn’t have to be huge. Entry-level printers are around £2,000 which means the return of investment would be slow but sure. What’s more they are very easy to use. Thirdly man hours are low because you can tweak designs in dedicated software rather than starting from scratch each time.

Finally, while you will need to be able to draw and design your prototype, we are noticing a shift in the digital ability of graduates. A new generation is emerging who can develop high tech, cutting edge, design-led pieces as a matter of course meaning you shouldn’t need to employ expensive specialists but those with enough digital know-how to see a design through to a physical reality using digital software.

This doesn’t just extend to engineering. Creative industries can use 3D printers to bring concepts to life to help clients visualise the end results quickly and cheaply rather than incur the hours of handmade models. Instead the file can be reviewed and refined over and over again – without it being an ordeal. What’s more, it can enable creatives to be more experimental, exploring how 3D printing can be incorporated to set their design apart from the competition. You only need to look at market leaders like Neighbourhood in Manchester to see how those with the foresight to experiment are stealing a march.

There are two types of people that should love 3D printing. Those who think it’s cool – the early adopters and enthusiasts keen to push the boundaries of technology – and those who have a need for it. Which will be increasingly each and every SME. We all know that success of our business lies in our ability to be ahead of the curve on everything. 3D printing is no different. Finding a way to embrace could be the key to giving you that further edge.

Mike Mead is from DigitME – an organisation funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to support Northwest manufacturers and head judge of Cartridgesave.co.uk’s 3D Print Cup.